Pushed too far: Belvoir’s This Heaven

Tonight the night is dirty and heavy, and the moon is swollen and bright. Everyone knows that on nights like this, things happen.

The streets of Mount Druitt are tinderbox dry, a powderkeg waiting to ignite. All it needs is the reason, a spark.
Nakkiah Lui’s This Heaven is about a young indigenous woman whose father died in custody at Mount Druitt Police Station. The police were found ‘not guilty’ and were fined; the family got $9,000, and no-one is allowed to speak about it. The young woman, Sissy, is about to become a lawyer but the law can wait; tonight is a time to grieve, to make their voices heard, to push, to fight, to take a stand. Tonight, things will happen.
I’ve spent the past two days thinking about this play, and I’m no closer to articulating my thoughts on it. Because it was so blunt, so unavoidably angry and passionate, so heartfelt and real; because it happened, because it happens, because it will happen. Again. And again.

It’s about the price of a life, what price someone will pay to keep people quiet, the price people will pay to stay silent; the price a community pays when one of their members is taken from them, the price families pay when they try to find out what happened, when all they want is the truth. Like The Secret River, This Heaven is not an easy play to sit through but it is, likewise – unfortunately – a necessary play. Set in and around a public swing set that dominates the tiny Downstairs Theatre, Lee Lewis’ production is a tight and volatile examination of what happens to the family that “finds themselves at a flash point of oppression, loss, love and anger.” The tiny space becomes a crucible then, for Lui’s fierce public forum – the swing set a family’s theatre for their grief, a rallying point for a community – where  “the essential matters of what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad are up for grabs.” As the cast enter along the back wall, their voices overlapping and running together to create a verbal picture of the Mount Druitt area and the play’s context, you’d rather not guess at the play’s ending. Immediately, we meet a family in the midst of a tragedy, two communities on either side of a line trying not to look at the other, too afraid of what might happen, what could happen, what can – will – happen.
Casting, when done right, solves half the problem of the play. In the case of This Heaven, every one of the five cast members holds their own, from Eden Falk’s weary lawyer, to Jada Albert’s indignant Sissy and Travis Cardona’s blind, unwavering Ducky, to Tessa Rose’s Joan who tries to stop her children from tearing their family further apart, to Joshua Anderson’s policeman who is caught up in the middle of it all, unable to say with certainty what happened. We all want to change the world, the characters each say at one point or another, but as we go through life we quickly find that it’s never as easy or as achievable as we’d first thought. And while it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, it also means that success – if, when, it comes – can also be quite a hard pill to swallow.
Lui’s This Heaven is that hard play, vicious and bitter and raw, full of a blood that won’t stop flowing; it’s passionate and vehement and compelling, while at the same time strangely beautiful in its language, its characters identifiable yet also archetypal – Everypeople caught up in a maelstrom from which there is can be only one escape. Luiz Pampolha’s lighting works in haunting conjunction with Alice Babidge and Sophie Fletcher’s set and the sound design and music of Nate Edmondson and Steve Francis, evoking Lui’s “idea of backstreets and darkness and fire and people, weaving in and out of the night.” An anger, a fire of anger, a conflagration in the night, desperation and sorrow and despair erupting, igniting, and being destroyed by morning.
By the play’s end, you despair for Sissy and Ducky, you ache for Joan whose family has been decimated, and the community that’s been ripped apart. And while it’s a story about “fighting back, and about love, and about loss, [about] how these really big things just ripple on through people’s lives forever and can create these massive changes,” it’s also about the inherent ingrained racism, the prejudices that exist and are rampant in our society. At the play’s centre is the question, “does doing nothing make you as complicit as the perpetrators?” If we stay silent and do nothing, are we saving ourselves, protecting ourselves, or are we condemning the act to be repeated ad infinitum? By staying silent, how can we live with ourselves and let this happen? What does it take to stand up and say enough, how do we act when the rules are constantly being redrawn, when the battlefield is changing beneath our feet, when the lines are being redrawn with every passing day?
Every act has its price, its repercussions, every beat of a butterfly’s wings causing another catastrophe somewhere else.
And by morning, everything is different.

Theatre playlist: 5. Aftermath, Nigel Godrich

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